‘Sim City’ Partners With Big Oil To Build Brave New ‘Societies’

Players can build BP-branded coal, wind, nuclear or solar power plants, learning the costs and benefits of alternative energy.

Make a game. Have fun in the process. Ship the game. And hope people have fun with what you made.

That’s an ideal scenario for any game developer, even if the real world doesn’t always cooperate. That’s certainly what video game producer Rachel Bernstein hoped for when she got involved with “Sim City Societies.” The new spin-off of the famous metropolis-making game brand is designed for players to cultivate not just buildings and roads but also the culture of a town, which they can make a romantic charmer or give an oppressive, Orwellian vibe.

But Bernstein was thrown off by a twist in the development of this game.

“When I arrived at EA and saw there was someone with a BP address on my e-mail threads I thought it was a joke,” she told MTV News in an interview last month. She’s a Californian, formerly a New Yorker (“You can probably guess my politics,” she said), and here was the oil company formerly known as British Petroleum getting in on her game. But why?

“We really were interested in entertainment with a bit of education, rather than education with a bit of entertainment,” explained Carol Battershell, vice president of BP Alternative Energy, an initiative that has committed $8 billion over the next 10 years to making plants that generate cleaner electricity via solar, wind, natural gas and hydrogen power. BP wanted to help shape the interactive power grid of “Sim City Societies.”

So last month, with an agreement that details would stay under wraps until today’s official announcement of the BP-”Sim City” venture, Bernstein and two gaming PR reps showed MTV News what BP had contributed. Bernstein opened her laptop and booted up a working copy of “Sim City Societies.” She had built a big “romantic” city, meaning the town championed beauty, the arts and the happiness of its citizens. It was so romantic that when she dropped a BP-branded windmill farm onto her grid, the doorway to the farm’s central building sprouted two clay pots full of flowers. Had she been crafting a more miserable metropolis, that doorway might have automatically been decked with surveillance cameras instead, she said.

Since the first “Sim City” came out in 1989, the series has given players a god-view from which to play mayor, builder and bringer of natural disasters. In “Societies,” Bernstein was able to pull up menus of power plant options and a chart showing how much pollution the city was creating.

“Power is a choice like all the others,” Bernstein said. “You could choose to be Big Brother. You could choose to be Mr. Nice Guy. The same thing with power. What helped us with BP was getting all these ratios right.” Via Battershell, BP provided Bernstein and the game’s development studio, Tilted Mill, with data, pictures and feedback that would reflect the benefits and drawbacks of various power plants. You could build a nuclear plant for 30,000 Simoleans — that’s 10 times the cost of building a coal plant but generates only twice the power — yet your town also gets the benefit of a drop in pollution. Wind and solar are even cleaner, but generate less power per plot of “Sim City” land.

With cheat modes activated, Bernstein switched her city’s power plants to the cleaner variety. She pulled up her pollution graph. Carbon-based pollution in her city had dropped. (The game also tracks smog as a separate issue.) She didn’t have a lot of residents in her hastily built city, so the streets were almost as clean as her power plants. “All carbon-based pollution in [this city] is coming from cars,” she said, working her finger across the display. “And we have this award here for having a high population but a low carbon output; the city is recognized as a ‘green city.’” Then she dropped a coal plant from on high. The sky above her city immediately darkened a shade. Her greenness was in jeopardy.

The game developers and BP both like the idea of “Sim City Societies” being a platform for some environmental role-playing. Players can choke a city with dirty power, reap the profits and explore the drawbacks (which include the appearance of protesting environmentalists). Then again, players can also try things that seem almost impossible in the real world. “Can you make an industrial city that’s green?” Bernstein asked.

Battershell is pleased that, while the game lets players strive to make a green city, it doesn’t make it unrealistically easy. “One of the things I was really pleased with … is that it still is more expensive to make the wind and solar power, but the market is trying to compensate for that,” she said. She cited the developers’ invention of a building called the Carbon Exchange, which is designed to simulate carbon-off-setting programs like the Chicago Climate Exchange, in which companies can pledge to limit pollution to a certain amount and then, if they come in under that amount, sell the difference to other companies that exceed their limit. In “Sim City Societies,” a player who has built the Carbon Exchange building makes money if they can keep pollution in a growing city exceptionally low.

In addition to giving the developers its energy expertise, Battershell said BP paid to be involved, but she declined to say how much, stating it was “an exchange mostly of education for a little bit of awareness.”

But one area BP left largely untouched was the effect of gas-powered cars on pollution. Players can build two different types of BP gas stations in the game, but there is no messaging about better or worse ways to manage pollution created by cars.

“We didn’t ignore the cars, but the fact is a lot more of the CO2 comes from the power plants,” Battershell said. According to BP, 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases come from power plants, not cars, planes or trains. She said the emphasis in the game on managing pollution by managing power plants reflects the types of decisions a city mayor can make.

The game’s pollution graph will show the effect of cars on smog, Bernstein noted. And the construction of subways and bus stops will lower the air pollution. The game has modeled smog drawbacks. “Smog makes people sick,” she said. “Then they don’t go to work.”

Bernstein said her initial skepticism about BP’s involvement has been undone. “They didn’t see this as an opportunity to go out there and brainwash people with BP,” she said. “I do believe them when they say, ‘We’re looking at the future of our company, and we’re looking at alternative energies in the next decade. We’re going to move away from carbon production, because that’s the way things are going. And we’re going to understand it and support it.’ ”

Making a game with the help of an oil company that now is positioned as an “energy” company? It wouldn’t be “Sim City” without taking a chance or two. The game is slated for release November 13 on PC.